For decades now Americans have been operating with the understanding that fats are bad and are to be avoided. Those of us with high cholesterol, various heart conditions, or even just a family history of coronary artery disease are told to go on a “low fat” diet, avoiding all forms of fat if possible. The first thing that we do if we desire to lose weight is to start avoiding fat in our diets. Our grocery stores shelves are crowded with products that claim “no-fat” or “low-fat” on their labels.
Well, the truth is that there are good fats and there are bad fats. There is no question that we have entirely too many fats (of the bad variety) in our diets. The answer to our health needs is not to avoid fats completely, but to change the balance of the kinds of fats we consume in favor of the good fats.
Back in the 1950’s men, mostly in their forties and fifties, began having a new kind of heart attack… one that was caused by a blockage in the arteries around the heart. Medical experts of the day realized that consuming too many saturated fats, mostly from meat in the diet, and not enough polyunsaturated fats, was bad for the heart. The food industry became awash in corn, safflower, peanut, sunflower and cottonseed oils. These are all polyunsaturated, Omega-6 oils.
In the 1970’s it was discovered that consuming too many Omega-6 fats and not enough Omega-3 fats actually promotes all of the diseases that we have been trying to avoid… heart disease, allergies, asthma, autoimmune diseases, cancer, diabetes, depression, obesity, etc.
Eskimos that live in Greenland are known to be remarkably free of heart disease, in spite of the fact that they have a lot of fat in their diets. The reason is that the fats that they consume are from the fish and shellfish that are most available to them, mostly of the Omega-3 variety. In 1997 a study revealed that for the first time in their history, the Japanese people were beginning to show a rise in all of the same diseases mentioned earlier, and this coincides with a rise in Omega-6 fat consumption that goes with their newly “Westernized” diet.
And truth be told, historically, until relatively recent times, before food and water was transported by truck or train, people always settled near a lake, river or stream, and always had a fresh supply of fish or seafood as a staple in the diet. Also, studies have verified that wild game has high levels of Omega-3 fats while domestically raised animals, fed differently than how they would eat in the wild, provide almost no Omega-3 fats.
Additionally, other foods that naturally supply Omega-3 fats have fallen out of favor in our industrialized society. Walnuts and butternuts, rich sources of Omega-3s, have been replaced with cashews and peanuts, virtually bereft of Omega-3s. Up until World War II, flaxseeds and the oil from flaxseeds, which provide more Omega-3s than almost any other edible seed, were highly valued, but have since been replaced by other oils that offer no Omega-3s. Of all known green, leafy vegetables, purslane is the richest source of Omega-3s. In other countries purslane is considered a food, either as a salad green or a cooked vegetable, but here it is considered a weed.
The fatty acids in the body, including the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty varieties, are used for production of many different components… possibly the most important being the prostaglandins; hormone-like substances that help regulate many functions in the body, including what every cell in the body allows in and out of it. The key is that too much production of certain ones, ones that originate from the Omega-6s, are responsible for the eventual clogging of the arteries that leads to the heart attacks so prevalent in our society today.
Doctors today commonly recommend some sort of mechanism to keep blood thinner rather than thicker. The mechanism-du-jour is to take a baby aspirin every day. Thromboxane is a prostaglandin that initiates the clotting mechanism in the body which, or course, is needed to keep us from bleeding to death from a cut. But too much thromboxane can be responsible for abnormal clotting, or the tendency for blood to be too thick. And it is the Omega-6 fats that lead to thromboxane over-production and the Omega-3 fats that reverse that trend. Some researchers feel that Omega-3 fats from fish may serve as an alternate to aspirin for reducing clotting and preventing heart disease without any side effects. Thromboxane is also a potent constrictor of arteries, again, a necessary action if one is cut and bleeding. But the over-production of thromboxane, from excess consumption of Omega-6 fats, can lead to chronic constricting of the arteries in the body, which may show up as high blood pressure. Increasing Omega-3 fat intake can help relax and stretch out these blood vessels, thus lowering blood pressure.
Studies have indicated that certain fats can affect cancerous tumor growth in different ways. Generally, fats high in Omega-6 fatty acids actually encourage tumor growth while fats high in Omega-3 fatty acids can block tumor growth. And, apparently, this fact can even be more important than overall nutritional status, as demonstrated by a study done in South Africa comparing colon cancer rates of people in a small fishing village and similar people in Cape Town, an urban city. Even though the people in the city consumed twice the amount of fruits and vegetables, supplying the nutrients that are known to help prevent colon cancer (like fiber, calcium and antioxidants), they had six times the incidence of colon cancer. The difference was the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids that the villagers consumed because fish was a staple in their diets, which translated into 3 times the amount of Omega-3s and considerably less Omega-6s in their blood.
The Omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA is the most prevalent fat in the brain and in the retina of the eye. Many countries throughout the world require that DHA be added to baby formulas, but not in the United States. As a fetus is developing in a mother’s body, DHA is transferred to the baby through the placenta from the mother’s supplies. If the mother’s diet consists of too many Omega-6’s and not enough Omega-3’s then the baby cannot get all of its needs and eventually ends up suffering in its ability to develop optimally. The same is true once the baby is born and is nursed… Mom’s diet needs to have more Omega-3’s. Studies show that babies that are supplemented with the Omega-3 fatty acid DHA end up having higher intelligence scores than babies who do not. The Omega-3 fats have also been shown to improve Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.H.D.) and Autism in children and depression and even schizophrenia in adults.
So the bottom line is that in the Standard American Diet (SAD) we get entirely too many Omega-6 fatty acids and not enough Omega-3 fatty acids. The answer is not to just stop the Omega-6 consumption. In fact, I would challenge you to try… practically every prepared food that we eat has the polyunsaturated fats that we would need to avoid. The answer is to lower the amounts of Omega-6s and substitute them with the Omega-3s. By all means, increasing consumption of cold Atlantic fish will help, but realize that much of the fish at the grocery store these days is actually farmed, not caught wild, and eats differently than in the big ocean. And, of course, as is the case with other domestically raised animals, these fish end up having higher Omega-6 and lower Omega-3 levels. Additionally, fish have been shown to be contaminated with lead, mercury, PCBs, Dioxins, etc., regardless of where in the world they come from.
Ultimately, I have come to the conclusion with my patients that they need to supplement with fish oil supplements to insure that they are getting a balance of fats more like the diet supplied 100 years ago. Fish oil supplements come in different strengths and quality. The oil should come from cold Atlantic fish (not farmed). I believe the best quality product is WholeMega by New Chapter. There are also enteric-coated fish oil softgels for those who taste fish all day long from a lack of proper digestion.